If the Station North Arts District is a frontier, Sherwin Mark is its frontiersman.
In 2005, when Mark opened the Load of Fun Gallery at 120 W. North Ave., the block was a grim place, with boarded-up buildings and needle-strewn alleys. While not all of those problems have been resolved, the area today is bursting with nightclubs, a popular pizzeria and galleries. Just try getting a parking space on a weekend night.
The 60-year-old Mark was in many ways a trailblazer. But his path is strewn with broken relationships and bitter feelings.
"The neighborhood, the artists and the surrounding businesses may or may not have benefited from my efforts and from the risks I've taken," Mark says. "But for me, Load of Fun has been and continues to be a disaster. I've been attacked a lot. I've been called a cultural criminal. People think you're making millions of dollars and exploiting them when you're spending every cent you've got on their behalf."
Even Mark's enemies would concede that he has accomplished amazing things in Station North. His efforts to improve the neighborhood have extended far beyond his property lines.
It is Mark who has been applying pressure to the owner of a vacant lot to develop his property. It was Mark who first lobbied Artscape to extend the boundaries of the country's largest free outdoor arts festival to Station North.
Currently, he is helping to put together Baltimore's first moderately priced, artist-only housing at 440 E. Oliver St. The 69-unit apartment building with an in-house art gallery is scheduled to open in December.
"He's done fabulous work," says Nancy Haragan, former longtime head of the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance. "Sherwin could have just been a landlord, but instead he's an active, energetic participant in the art world. He has great ideas. His building keeps getting better and better. Every few months, there's something new. He and I don't always agree, but frequently we do."
Friend or enemy?
As a group, artists couldn't have a better friend than Mark. Individually, it can be a different story.
This year, Mark ousted Ric Royer, an actor he'd hired to oversee the black box LOF/t theater. Royer is talented and popular — he's now attending a Brown University graduate program on a full scholarship — and artists and administrators citywide lined up to take sides.
Another former employee, Suzannah Gerber, accused Mark of criminal assault in 2008, though charges were dropped before the case could come to trial.
But Charlie Duff, president of the Midtown Development Corp. and a longtime colleague and friend, describes Mark as "a genius" and "one of the most remarkable people I've ever met."
Mark was Duff's first choice to help him set up an artists community in the Oliver Street apartment building. But the various contretemps surrounding Mark temporarily gave the developer pause.
"I've been a dismayed bystander to all that," Duff says. "I wondered if Sherwin had weakened his relationships with the broader arts community and if all this might have made him less effective as part of the city arts team.
"I'm pleased to say that it hasn't. The key thing was that we get good people to run the building gallery, and boy, have we. Whatever has happened, I don't think it's been fatal."
In person, Mark is short, round and has a broad dome that emphasizes his oversize brain. He often dresses in khakis — a style originally worn on safaris by hunters tracking big game in his native South Africa, and appropriate to a man who finds himself in frequent skirmishes.
"Artists have always been my community," he says. "I will always fight for them, regardless of how [ticked] off they are at me."
Property and power
When Mark meets a potential tenant who could add value to Station North, he goes out of his way to negotiate favorable terms. For instance, he was eager to provide Single Carrot Theatre, a group of twentysomething performers, with their first permanent venue. Mark reasoned that a theater company was more likely than visual artists to increase foot traffic in the neighborhood at night.
"We moved in in January 2007, and Sherwin gave us the space at an extremely affordable rate," says J. Buck Jabaily, a founding member of the Carrots and the current executive director of the Cultural Alliance. "That was a huge step forward for us. Sherwin essentially subsidizes artists to work in his space. He could make a lot more money than he does. He intentionally charges less than the market rate."
People angry at Mark frequently say that his motives are mercenary. But it would be difficult to fake the zeal that he expresses for projects unlikely to benefit him personally. Once Mark has seized upon an idea, he will continue to press, and press hard, until the moment the coroner tags his big toe.
For instance, he has been urging the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Baker Memorial Fund to create a program to help artists buy their own homes.
"Station North is at a very precarious point," he says. "It could totally flourish and be wonderful. But for that to happen, it can't be all about developers and city planners and arts administrators. Artists have to have a stake in it. I'm always telling artists that if they don't buy property, they won't have power."
He should know. In the mid 1980s, Mark walked away from a flourishing career as a visual artist. He now owns seven residential properties in addition to Load of Fun.
"In the 1980s, Sherwin was easily one of the 10 best artists in Baltimore," says Gary Kachadourian, who for 22 years was Artscape's visual arts coordinator. "He was on the verge of getting a national reputation. There aren't very many cases of people who stop making art when they're at the top of their game. But that's what Sherwin did."
Kachadourian thinks that's because Mark needed a broader canvas on which to fully express his creativity — and that he eventually found it in Station North.
Art and temperament
"The motivating factor for Sherwin goes back to the creative process," Kachadourian says. "He approaches Load of Fun the way an artist approaches making a painting."
He notes that some of the charges leveled against Mark — his single-minded focus on his vision, his willingness to trample on others' feelings – are identical to the complaints frequently made about artists.
"Sherwin is trying to build something of value, something real," Kachadourian says.
But Royer isn't buying it.
"When Sherwin doesn't get something he wants, he throws a tantrum," Royer says. "And some of those tantrums have been legendary. I've heard it said that sometimes you need mad men, and Station North is better off with Sherwin and Load of Fun than without them. But my answer to that is no. There are people whose lives have been damaged, and that's more important than his artistic mythos."
Royer's contract to manage the LOF/t was terminated in January, a month after he received a so-called "confetti" award from the Community Foundation for his past programming at the black box theater.
Mark was incensed — he thought the award ought to have gone to the organization, not Royer. He called a meeting attended by Haragan, Melissa Warlow of the Community Foundation and Doreen Bolger, director of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and expressed his displeasure in terms strong enough to risk alienating three of the most influential members of Baltimore's arts community.
At stake was just $2,000.
For Mark, the issue wasn't the money, but the principle. He is generous about giving credit where credit is due. But he can be implacable if he thinks that Royer — or anyone else — is getting recognition that rightly belongs to him.
Mark says that he'd been intending to fire Royer since the fall of 2009 because he was "incompetent as a manager" and that his dismissal "had nothing to do with the confetti grants."
But he also was clearly rankled by the growing perception that the LOF/t was Royer's baby.
"I paid over $100,000 in labor and equipment to build the LOF/t," Mark says. "I installed the sound system, I put in new plumbing. Ric never picked up a hammer. Yet, he claimed that he alone was responsible for the LOF/t's success."
Mark seems to have harbored similar resentments against Suzannah Gerber. Simmering tensions between he two culminated in an ugly public outburst on July 19, 2008.
At the time, Gerber, who operates a sexually explicit website under the pseudonym Klawdya Rothschild, had been hired by Mark to run programming at the LOF/t. On that particular summer evening, she had programmed the Baltimore Erotic Arts Festival (of which she is the founder) into the space. Three hundred people attended the event.
"After several weeks of tolerating Suzannah's ever-increasing sense that she 'owned' Load of Fun, she was finally publicly very abusive to me on that Saturday night," Mark says.
Both agree that at some point Mark made physical contact with Gerber. In the criminal complaint, she said that he grabbed her hair, dug his fingers into her neck and immobilized her jaw. "I thought he wanted to kill me," she says in the complaint.
Mark's recollection is different.
"I told her in no uncertain terms that she should stay the … away from me," Mark says. "When she pretended not to hear me above the music, I turned her head towards me and repeated, 'Suzannah, stay the … away from me.'"
Two days later, Mark was charged with second-degree assault. In October 2008, he filed a countersuit against Gerber on theft charges. Before either case could go to trial in December, both parties agreed to drop their complaints. All charges were dismissed.
Fighting City Hall
Royer describes Mark as "an alpha male" and "a cowboy" — and these attributes can come in handy when Mark is battling a person or institution manifestly more powerful than he. After all, how many people have fought City Hall and won?
But that's just what Mark did when the Baltimore Police Department whitewashed the vibrantly colored graffiti wall behind his property in the winter of 2007-08. Graffiti is illegal in Baltimore as in most municipalities. But the wall was not only beautiful, it was family friendly. There were no gang slogans, no graphic depictions of sex acts.
Mark went to work. He called meetings, wrote letters and went door to door seeking support from neighborhood business owners. He threatened a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.
Eventually, the city backed down. Today, the graffiti wall is one of Baltimore's jewels.
"I come from South Africa, and I'm used to crisis," Mark says. "Everyone argues like crazy about everything. I'm used to working in opposition to something."
And for better or for worse, Sherwin Mark is quick on the draw.